New to dog ownership? Don’t stress. We’ve got you covered with our guide for first-time dog owners. 

By Lacey Howard
August 24, 2020
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Dog ownership is one of life’s great joys. But the idea can be intimidating if you’ve never owned a dog before. Never fear: Here are 13 essential first time dog tips for you to feel confident every step of the way with your new canine companion. And since you’re already doing #1, give yourself a pat on the back—you’re well on your way to being a top-notch dog owner already! 

1. Do Your Research 

There’s a lot to consider before you bring a four-legged family member home. Be sure you’re ready before you say, “I do.” Part of being ready is understanding what a dog requires physically and mentally—and asking yourself if you’re up for the commitment for the rest of his life. “Your new dog is completely reliant on you,” explains Alex Miller, a veterinary technician at Ames Animal Shelter and Animal Control in Ames, Iowa. “You may have a life, work, and friends, but your dog has nothing but you.” 

To make sure you adopt a dog that will be a good fit in your life, Mick McAuliffe, Director of Behavior and Enhancement for the Animal Rescue League of Iowa says to “look at the big picture for the pet and for your family and for where you live—some cities or neighborhoods have restrictions.” He explains that researching breeds is a good start, but a better idea is to talk to shelter staff and tell them what sort of lifestyle you want for the pet. “They really know the dogs,” he adds. “They can help you find a good match.” 

2. Know Your Budget 

One of the biggest commitments in dog ownership is the cost involved. There are monthly, annual, and less-frequent expenses such as quality food and treats, flea/tick and heartworm preventatives, grooming, checkups, and vaccines. Not to mention all the things you need to purchase before you bring him into your home. 

3. Prep Your House 

Getting your home ready to share with a dog isn’t quite as intense as getting ready for a baby. Quite. You’ll need some basics such as bowls, a collar, leash, toys, and a crate for potty training if you’re adopting a puppy. Although an older dog will still need just as much gear, he probably won’t outgrow it or tear it up while teething. 

4. Train Consistently

The first few days (or even months) at your home will be tough for your new pet. “A shelter setting is one of the most stressful things for a dog,” Miller says. He adds that it will take time for your new pet to relax into his new environment and to trust you as his caretaker. Be patient and practice positive reinforcement to teach your dog the house rules and how you expect him to behave. Develop a daily routine to make your dog more comfortable as he settles in. Consistency, stability, and predictability are the keys to keeping anxiety to a minimum during the early days.  

5. Choose the Right Food

High-quality food isn’t cheap, but ensuring your pup has the best ingredients to fuel his romps in the park means finding a food that fits his needs. Some foods can cause systemic allergies and other health problems, while others might be meant for dogs of different sizes or activity levels. If you have questions about what kind of dog food is right for your hound, your vet may have some helpful recommendations based on his age, size, and lifestyle. Abbey Weimann, Foster Coordinator at Ames Animal Shelter and Animal Control, also recommends shopping at a local specialty store where employees can guide you to a nutrition solution that meets your pup’s needs if he has allergies or other issues. 

6. Find a Veterinarian

One of McAuliffe’s top tips is to develop a relationship with a vet that both you and your dog trust and respect. Miller agrees finding a vet is of utmost importance. “When you get a new dog, go to the vet very soon after. The doctor can walk you through the vaccination schedule the dog will need, and the best flea/tick and heartworm preventatives.”

7. Consider a Microchip

According to the American Kennel Club, a microchip is no larger than a grain of rice that’s inserted under the loose skin between your dog’s shoulder blades. This chip holds your pet’s unique ID number when scanned by a vet or shelter. While you’re at the vet, inquire about microchipping your new pet as a form of protection should he go missing. If you adopted from a shelter, the dog was likely already chipped there, but make sure to ask before bringing him home. “It only takes one moment to lose your beloved pet forever, but the chances of being reunited is significantly greater with a microchip,” Miller says. 

8. Learn How to Communicate

“There are three secrets to dog training,” McAuliffe says. “Patience, patience, and patience.” He adds that body language is how your dog speaks to you. “The dog tells the story if you’re willing to listen,” he says. One way to be sure you and your pup are listening to each other is puppy training classes based on positive reinforcement.

9. Know Your Dog’s Needs

McAuliffe says you should be aware of both the physical and mental health of your dog. Not only do dogs need daily exercise like walks or jogs or play, but also social interaction with humans and other animals. McAuliffe suggests enrichment toys such as kongs and puzzle toys to keep your dog’s mind sharp and avoid boredom.

10. Get Backup Support

You’ll need a support system as a dog owner. For example, if you are regularly away from home for hours on end you may consider doggy day care or at least a dog walker. When you travel and your pup can’t go with you, you’ll need a boarding solution or a sitter. McAuliffe also emphasizes having a plan for the unthinkable. “If there’s a sudden life change, do you have support that can also support your pet?” he asks. “If you break your leg, who will walk the dog?” 

11. Be Ready for Setbacks

Let’s face it: Life happens. “At some point he will have an accident inside, or chew up your shoes or headphones, or get in the trash—it is all part of having a pet,” Miller says. “It’s a learning curve,” McAuliffe says, for both of you. He recommends The Association of Professional Dog Trainers for behavior support. Also, many shelters have free helplines and some vets are very well-versed in behavior should you have questions.

12. Be Responsible

Make a life-long commitment to take care of your dog by providing him with adequate nutrition, exercise, and interaction as well as veterinary care and training. With dog ownership, you also make a commitment to your community that you will take responsibility for your dog’s actions—including picking up after him on walks! Research your local laws and regulations around dog ownership, and be sure to follow rules like licensing your dog and making sure he’s up-to-date on any mandatory vaccinations (like rabies, which is required by law in most states).

13. Relax!

“People go on the internet and there’s lots of checklists for puppies that say [your dog needs to] ‘meet 25 new people every day’ and they are scary and unrealistic!” McAuliffe says. He advises to just do the best you can. If you are stressed, your dog will know it. So take a deep breath and know that if you give your dog love and care he will return it ten-fold.